Is this a teachable moment for dialogue?

A discussion on this topic recently lit up the main listserv of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member). The inspiration for the thread came from a New York Times article about the downgrade of U.S. debt in the wake of congressional gridlock. From the article:

In its announcement Friday night, S.& P. cited the political gridlock in Washington during the debt limit debate as a main reason for its decision. ‘The gulf between the political parties,’ S.& P. said, had reduced its confidence in the government’s ability to manage its finances.

Let’s summarize:

  • Congress faces a momentous vote on the federal debt.
  • Rather than dialogue, the two parties dig in their heels and refuse to compromise.
  • This shakes the world’s confidence in the government’s willingness (not its ability) to make debt payments.
  • Finance people hate uncertainty. So…
  • Standard & Poor’s downgrades the credit rating, the markets plunge, and millions of people watch their retirement savings shrink.

Granted, the debt downgrade was not the only driver of the markets over the past week. But that doesn’t detract from the larger lesson here: the refusal to dialogue has consequences. At the highest levels of government, it has big consequences.

I’m not advocating that our elected officials adopt a specific dialogue process to solve this particular issue (though they could choose from a wide range of excellent options if they wanted to). Before any discussion of process, I would suggest, is the need to adopt a dialogue mindset: a deliberate turning toward openness, toward setting aside preconceptions long enough to hear others, toward seeking out common ground, toward seeing the humanness in our adversaries, toward speaking from the heart and listening from the heart.

I know this flies in the face of the Washington culture—and, in some places, even aspects of the system. We elect people, after all, partly to represent our interests. Powerful forces exert their power quite effectively, thank you, without any talk of dialogue, and they perhaps are perfectly happy with the system the way it is.

But on a fundamental level, our elected officials are called to get things done.  Refusal to dialogue makes fulfilling this call extremely difficult. In contrast, authentic dialogue can empower them not just to hear one another, but to build on one another’s ideas—so that the solutions they develop may well be far better than the initial positions of the respective sides.

What would it take for Congress to adopt a mindset of dialogue? What do you think?